How to Promote Fed Independence: Perspectives from Political Economy and History

In two short histories of the independence of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank since its creation in 1913—the first with respect to the Fed’s monetary policymaking, the second focused on its regulatory policy-making—the author shows that the range of the Fed’s powers has varied greatly over time, and that changes in those powers have had major effects on the extent of Fed independence. Moreover, the shifts over time in Fed powers reflect, to a significant degree, conscious trade-offs by Fed leaders. A large number of somewhat surprising Fed positions on important regulatory matters can be explained as more or less deliberate attempts to preserve the Fed’s monetary powers from political interference by yielding some of its independence in exercising its regulatory authority.

In a case involving one of the most destructive U.S. financial regulatory policies, the Fed’s effective neutrality on, and thus failure to support, the elimination of restrictions on interstate branch banking is seen as contributing to the chronic instability of the U.S. banking system, which has suffered some 20 major crises since the early 1800s (as compared to the crisis-free Canadian system, with its nationwide banking from its inception). The Fed’s reluctance to intervene is attributed to its unwillingness to antagonize powerful Congressional supporters of state banking interests and, more generally, to a “game of bank bargains” that can be seen at work in the political economy of virtually all countries.

In more recent times, the most costly episode in this time-honored game features a series of implicit or, in some cases, explicit agreements between large U.S. banks and urban activist groups—under the aegis of the Community Reinvestment Act, and with the oversight and implicit blessing of the Fed—to make on the order of $4.6 trillion loans to “subprime” borrowers in exchange for the activists’ (and the Fed’s) support in Congressional merger hearings. The resulting nationwide debasement of mortgage underwriting standards and sheer volume of “toxic assets,” in combination with clearly inadequate capital requirements (which the Fed also failed to correct), are viewed as if not the principal cause of the crisis, a far bigger contributor than, say, the Fed’s widely criticized unwillingness to tighten monetary policy in the early 2000s.

To prevent the Fed from continuing to sacrifice its independence in regulatory matters to preserve its freedom to conduct monetary policy, the author proposes that authority for regulatory and monetary policy be vested in two separate regulatory bodies. If carried out, such a policy change would enact a proposal made by then Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in 2008, just before the global financial crisis hit.